We hear some terms and expressions so often they become the white noise of football speak.
Chief among them is “franchise quarterback,” which has often been attached to Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. We hear about the few worthy of that title, along with those who want it, those who will never get it and teams plowing ahead hopelessly without one.
The simplest definition of a franchise quarterback? A quarterback who's reliably consistent while remaining at the same high level of play for a long, long time. That’s the lowest bar for entry into the club, and Ryan presents an interesting case. Over time, his body of work has become confusing and, recently, even a little baffling.
He was named Rookie of the Year in 2008, and he has gone to three Pro Bowls. He’s also been to the playoffs four times, with his most recent postseason campaign ending just five points shy of a Super Bowl berth.
But Ryan has also thrown the fifth-most interceptions since 2012 (57). Worse, his team is now clawing for a playoff spot this season after dropping four straight games, and instead of creating wins, he’s letting them evaporate with crippling mistakes.
As Yahoo’s Jay Busbee quite rightly quipped, highlight reels for franchise quarterbacks usually don’t require a parental warning.
Ryan is well into his eighth NFL season. At 30 years old with that experience, he should have shed rookie tendencies long ago. In the prime of his career, fundamental quarterback skills should be well-established, with the proper reads glowing on each dropback, and advanced field awareness preventing drive-killing mistakes.
Getting an invitation into the top tier of NFL quarterbacks means having those essential skills. The kind that can be taught but only to a certain extent. Early in a quarterback’s career, there’s a basic understanding of the many moving parts that lead to good decisions, and the rest is mastered over time.
Ryan has had plenty of time now after 121 starts and 4,350 regular-season pass attempts. Yet lately he hasn’t looked like a well-seasoned veteran or sounded like one while attempting to explain why he severely misplaced a throw and why a routine read wasn’t made.
Instead, he’s sounded like a much younger quarterback. One who’s lost his way, or maybe even didn’t find it to begin with.
"I've got to be better in terms of decision-making and knowing when to throw the ball away, cut our losses and kick the field goal,” Ryan said following a loss Sunday to the Minnesota Vikings, via Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com.
“We've got to really look in the mirror hard Monday and Tuesday before we get onto the practice field Wednesday and see what we can do differently to stop that from happening. For me, it starts with making great decisions, and I didn't do a good job of that.''
Ryan has thrown 12 interceptions in 2015, five of which have come over Atlanta’s last two games. He’s also had five multiple-interception games, tied for the league lead.
He's recently developed a habit of stomping on red-zone opportunities, too, which has crushed a spiraling Falcons team after its 5-0 start.
A third of Ryan’s interceptions have come in situations where, at the very least, three points were pretty much guaranteed with the field-goal equivalent of a one-foot putt.
Repeated red-zone interceptions are tough blows for any team to absorb, especially one that’s seen its last six games decided by an average of five points. For the Falcons, only one game during that stretch has ended in a win. It came against the currently 2-9 Tennessee Titans and their backup quarterback, Zach Mettenberger.
As Ryan’s interceptions have climbed, his touchdown percentage has plummeted because of those missed opportunities.
|Matt Ryan's touchdown percentages|
|Year||% of attempts resulting in TD|
Ryan’s turnover generosity has contributed to a startling lack of offense. When they were undefeated over the first five weeks, the Falcons scored an average of 32.4 points per game. Since then, they’ve averaged only 16.3 points, and Ryan’s supporting cast definitely isn’t the issue.
Any quarterback who gets to throw passes in the general direction of Julio Jones has plenty of help. He leads wide receivers with 1,245 yards through the air, while running back Devonta Freeman has logged 765 rushing yards despite missing essentially two games (he left early in the first quarter of Week 11 with a concussion and sat out Week 12). Earlier this season, Freeman became the first running back to score three touchdowns in each of his first two starts. Before his injury, he was averaging 126.8 yards from scrimmage per game.
No, the problem doesn’t lie in anything out of Ryan’s control, which is why fans at the Georgia Dome have been been compelled to voice their displeasure and/or anger.
He heard roughly 75,000 people saying boo-urns after his most recent red-zone meltdown. It came in the third quarter against the Vikings, and at the time, Atlanta trailed 7-3.
There was plenty of time left to overcome that minimal deficit. Quarterbacks capable of operating at an elite level can do complicated mental juggling while being mindful of the score, the clock and their place on the field.
With his experience, Ryan should be able to adjust, navigating every scenario thrown his way. Before he took a 3rd-and-goal snap with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter against Minnesota, a key thought should have entered his mind.
He could have even mumbled it to himself for positive reinforcement, saying something like “I don’t have to force anything with lots of time left. I like touchdowns, but a field goal is just fine here.”
It would have been weird if he screamed “field goal!” out loud as one last panicked reminder after pressure came from the right side, but whatever works. He didn't do that; instead, he scrambled left as his options were narrowed. That’s when he saw this…
Falcons tight end Jacob Tamme had drifted to the back of the end zone. But standing only a few yards in front of him was Vikings cornerback Terence Newman. Successfully connecting with Tamme meant looping a ball high enough that it would be out of Newman’s reach, and getting it there quickly so the defender couldn't cover the necessary ground.
Oh, and doing it all while on the run, when summoning enough arm juice for a throw that had to travel about 30 yards through the air was challenging.
So with all those factors in mind—the scoreboard, the clock, the oncoming pass rush and the extremely narrow throwing window—a field goal was starting to sound pretty nice.
Ryan had something else in mind.
Like most of his red-zone blunders, that interception was the result of poor vision and decision-making. A quarterback who was deemed worthy of a six-year contract signed in 2013 worth $103.8 million should be long past the stage when he frequently makes mistakes in judgement.
Ryan’s misfires hurt even more when he rips points off the board. And the pain grows further whenever he combines an inability to read the field with woeful accuracy, just as he did against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8.
Ryan didn’t read Kwon Alexander properly when the linebacker dropped in coverage. His ball placement was awful, but that’s a secondary concern. The throw shouldn’t have started its failed journey to begin with, as Ryan was trying to fit it into a hole slightly larger than your pug’s dog door.
Already this season, Ryan has posted four games with a passer rating below 80.0. As NFL.com’s Kevin Patra noted, he produced only six such games in 2013 and 2014 combined.
Ryan isn’t in danger of getting benched this season. Merely suggesting that is laughable after you look at the Falcons’ depth chart at the position and remember Sean Renfree—who hasn’t attempted a regular-season pass yet—is the only other option behind him.
But if his regression continues into 2016, a difficult decision could be coming.
All of the guaranteed money is gone in Ryan’s contract now. In 2017, the dead cap money tied to him if Atlanta moves on drops from $18.4 million to a more affordable $10.4 million, per Spotrac.
During 2016 and 2017, Ryan is also scheduled to account for a cap hit of $23.75 million, the peak value of his contract. If there’s a younger, cheaper and promising option on the roster by then, the axe could fall.
Ryan will be trying to save both the Falcons’ season and his status as a franchise quarterback over the next five games, two of which will be against the undefeated Carolina Panthers.
More failure will lead to more questions, snowballing toward an uncertain future.